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Pioneering traceability technologies are now able to track the footprint of textile fibres as they make their way around the world. HOLLY BERGER, marketing director of Swiss-based Haelixa, a forerunner in this space, looks at some of these technologies and their potential for transforming the way we relate to supply chains.

Who Made my Clothes? This was the powerful movement which was formed in the wake of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building 10 years ago. This tragedy led to a heightened interest in global fashion supply chains and, for fashion brands, where their clothing was produced could no longer be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

Since that time, many more brands have begun providing greater insight into their supply chains, most notably by publishing lists of their Tier 1 and, occasionally, Tier 2 suppliers. While such steps are welcome, there is a growing consensus that the industry needs to do more. What about the fibres content within our clothing? What are their origins, and can these origins be proven scientifically? The short answer to the second of these questions is: yes. The rise of fibre tracing technologies has been one of the most significant developments in fashion supply chains of the past decade. A new breed of smart technology companies has entered this segment and is shedding much needed light on textile supply chains around the world.

But what are these technologies, how are they being used and why are there growing calls for their implementation by fashion brands? There are several key drivers here. One of the most obvious is regulatory. Several years ago, a huge storm broke out when it became public knowledge that cotton from the Xinjiang region of Western China had been entering fashion supply chains via the world’s largest cotton standard.

Xinjiang cotton cultivation is widely known for its use of forced labour and links with the persecution of China’s indigenous Uyghur Muslim population. The Xinjiang furore prompted a period of soul-searching within the fashion industry. Among the many questions being asked were: how can we be sure whether cotton was from Xinjiang or not? After all, cotton goes through many processes and intermediaries after leaving the field. Can the paper trail left behind it be 100 percent trusted?

Xinjiang has heightened the sense within the fashion industry that there has to be a better, more scientific way of tracing cotton and other textile fibres through supply chain. Likewise, concerns around organic cotton fraud have also increased the sense of urgency around this issue. Traceability technologies are thus now being evaluated by more and more fashion retailers as a way to support existing site level and transaction-level fibre verification. These technologies, implemented correctly, enable supply chain stakeholders to confidently verify the product claims of physical materials.

There are two broad technology categories in this space. Forensic tracers involve analysis of the biochemical composition of fibres via isotopic ratios, DNA structures, and elemental meddles. Micro-particle analysis is then used to validate the geographic origins of fibres such as cotton through scientific methodologies.

Additive tracers see the application of a tracer substance to fibres (or materials/garments) in supply chains and this is then detected later down the supply chain to validate origin.

Haelixa’s patented DNA solution is one of the options for additive tracers. These applications range from spraying mists, liquid-inks and pigments, nano-invisible inks, and even digital serialisation markings onto product labels and fabric rolls. They can be detected via handheld and in-line UV light detectors, portable test kits, and smartphone/tablet photographic scanning.

The market is growing and, as indicated, key factor is the shifting regulatory environment. For instance, many regulators around the world are now clamping down on greenwashing and misleading marketing claims. They are calling for more evidence to support claims made by the fashion industry, including hard data as opposed to vague marketing straplines. One of the most advanced laws is the UFLPA in the US, which says: “DNA traceability or isotopic testing may make it possible to identify the origin particular goods or materials without tracing the supply chain.”

On another front, the Proposal for a Directive on Green Claims issued by the European Commission states that, “the substantiation of explicit environmental claims shall be based on an assessment that meets the selected minimum criteria to prevent claims from being misleading… relies on recognised scientific evidence and state of the art technical knowledge.” The use of fibre tracing technologies is thus very much in-keeping with these changes as they allow fashion brands to make cast-iron claims about the origins of the fibres in their clothing. They also serve as a form of protection against supply chain fraud, which will always be a challenge in long, complex supply chains. As well as organic cotton fraud, for instance, there are growing concerns in fashion circles about recycled polyester fraud and virgin polyester being substituted for its recycled counterpart. Traceability technologies could potentially play a role in providing brands with greater assurances around supply chains in this sector.

In terms of Haelixa’s own work in this area, we have worked with global cotton merchant Reinhart to develop a traceable GOTS compliant organic cotton from Tanzania using our DNA-based traceability solution. We also worked with one of Pakistan’s largest vertically integrated denim manufacturers, Soorty, using our DNA markers to support its claims related to the use of recycled cotton in denim products.

In many ways, these technologies serve a dual purpose. As well as providing a protective measure against fraud, they also open up new marketing avenues around storytelling relating to the provenance of textile fibres. At Haelixa, for instance, we have worked on projects around the world relating to traceable recycled cotton from Pakistan, recycled acrylic fibre, nettle fibre from Nepal and Australian wool to name a few.

In each of these cases, by providing better information about the providence of fibres, the use of traceable markers offered clients the opportunity to tell their story thanks to the clear scientific assurances that this technology provides. How cool, for instance, to be able to identify the exact location the Italian cotton in a T-shirt was grown, or the providence of a pair of recycled denim jeans from Pakistan.

I expect the use of textile traceability technologies to become much more widespread in the coming years. At Haelixa, we have seen huge (and growing) interest in our technology, with the market having overcome any initial reservations one might find with all novel technologies. With talk of Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) now dominating boardrooms the world over, progressive, responsible fashion brands – and their suppliers – are now recognising the need for a more robust and scientific way to trace the materials used to make our clothing.

The investment in these solutions is relatively small when set against the huge reputational damage that fraudulent fibre claims might lead to for brands who don’t have solutions in place. The fallout from the ‘fake Egyptian cotton’ furore several years ago (an incident that need not have happened with traceable fibre solutions in place) is a case in point.

The other side of the coin is that brands and their suppliers which implement traceable fibre solutions see obvious ROI benefits in terms of powerful marketing and storytelling opportunities, greater trust from customers and the ability to provide more solid assurances for would-be investors.

For more information about the world class textile fibre traceability services from Haelixa, please visit www.haelixa.com

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